Some of You May Die
By Deren Bott
Character deaths. We love them. We hate them. But what makes a character death a good call? And how can we make sure that we do it right? We’ve all read a book where a character dies. Whether it’s a redshirt, a side character, or a main character; character deaths should mean something. Too often there are stories where it feels like the author was getting bored and so they thought a sudden explosion or knife to the chest would work for no other reason than the way to spice things up. Deaths that are uncalled for. Deaths that sometimes ruin the story. Don’t get me wrong, deaths should ruin the story...but in a way that makes the reader want to keep reading. And that means making deaths meaningful. To understand how to make character deaths meaningful, we must first understand why they are used. There are several reasons why a writer may decide to kill a character. One of these primary reasons is to convey a sense of danger, risk, and cost to achieve the goal. The purpose of redshirt character deaths is often to convey the danger involved. A redshirt is a side character, usually without any development, that exists with the sole purpose of being killed. The term comes from Star Trek where the security personnel (who wore red shirts) were often killed right after being introduced. Other examples of this are palace guards whose bodies are found after the assassin passed through, a guy who fell into a hidden pit and revealed a trap, or the unknown people that jumped off the boat in Titanic. "Side characters" are a broader category that could include other key characters who aren’t as central to the plot. This could be the quiet character who jumps in front of the poisoned dart or the death of a brother that spurs the hero into action. However, this can be different when it comes to the plot than can a main character's death which is often a central point to the plot that impacts the rest of the story from that point onward. A modern example of this would be the death of Rue in The Hunger Games. To make these deaths meaningful, they must further the plot in a way that wasn’t possible without them. Don’t just kill a character for the sake of calling it a plot twist. No one likes a meaningless death, and it’s often what turns readers away from the book. When the character dies, there should be an emotional impact. You either want the reader to cheer (for example, the death of a villain) or make them cry. To emphasize which emotion the reader should be feeling, you can show the reaction of the other characters in the story and how the death affected them. Show how this death inspires the other characters to press forward so they didn’t die in vain. Or show how it breaks them. Be very, very, very, very, VERY cautious when bringing a dead character back to life. If you did your character's death in a way that was meaningful, bringing them back has the potential to undermine every emotional impact that was felt by the reader. Whether it’s through a reveal that they were not dead in the first place or they are revived through some means, it too often feels like characters return because the author or the fans couldn’t bear to part with them. However, the character returning is sometimes necessary for the plot. In those cases, take it into careful consideration that you use their return to further the plot in a way that doesn’t discredit their death. That being said, this blog post is not a comprehensive list of how to do character deaths. There are so many more tips and tricks that you can find on the internet from other writers that share specific ways to make your character deaths meaningful and impactful. However, the most important person to decide when a character should die is you. You know your story. You know how a death would affect your plot and characters. If it fits, I say go for it.